Between now and election day, pundits and pollsters are certain to frame the presidential contest thus: Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?
Coriolanus would not win that contest.
There’s nothing chummy or companionable about the imperious figure stalking and storming the stage in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s kinetic, full-blooded “Coriolanus,’’ directed by Steven Maler. The production is set in the present day, and the title character is (briefly) on his way to high political office, but Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has a temperament that is neither modern nor democratic. A man of the people he is not.
A man of action, though, he decidedly is, in Nicholas Carrière’s intense, fiery performance. Carrière portrays Coriolanus as a kind of Henry V without the charm or the crown, a man who does not accept the usual restraints on behavior or speech.
When Carrière’s Coriolanus, in a blood-soaked T-shirt, says to a group of Romans, “Make you a sword of me?’’ it is not a question or even an exhortation but a flat-out demand. When he is given the honorary name Coriolanus after a military victory, the general Cominius (Robert Walsh) raises Carrière’s arm like a referee declaring the winner in a prizefight.
He looks like he could hold his own in the ring. A native of West Bridgewater, Carrière is entirely plausible as a military leader and a ferocious, give-no-quarter combatant on the battlefield. He meets the physical demands of the role and of Maler’s often-gripping production, with one big exception: a ragged, utterly unconvincing fight scene between Coriolanus and his nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Maurice Parent), that reduces to empty air what should be a galvanizing moment.
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Coriolanus’’ is greatly bolstered by two supporting performances from actors who perpetually threaten to exhaust a critic’s supply of superlatives: Karen MacDonald, playing Volumnia, the forbidding mother of Coriolanus (“Anger’s my meat,’’ she says, and we believe it), and Fred Sullivan Jr., lending a tragic stature to Menenius Agrippa, a patrician friend of the title character who emerges as the stricken conscience of the play. (Sullivan and MacDonald were also standouts in the company’s production of “All’s Well That Ends Well’’ last summer).
By staging a modern-dress “Coriolanus’’ in an election year, director Maler clearly wants us to think about what qualities we seek in our leaders, and about the ways in which partisan politics — seen here in the form of a pair of scheming, demagogic Roman tribunes played by Jacqui Parker and Remo Airaldi — can poison and undermine the functioning of a republic.
There are other contemporary echoes. The set, a cluster of wooden barricades devised by the ubiquitous designer Cristina Todesco, suggests a state at war, evoking the protracted US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. When an angry throng clamors for corn, accusing the patricians of locking grain away for themselves during a food shortage, it’s hard not to think of the Occupy movement protest against the one-percenters. In one turbulent scene, masked riot police with translucent shields march up an aisle and onto the stage to restore order.
Yet the populace is as fickle as our own. Despite Coriolanus’s valor in battle, they quickly turn on him. No sooner is he nominated for consul than he is denounced and banished. “Thus I turn my back. There is a world elsewhere,’’ Coriolanus says, as Carrière strides off the stage and through the audience gathered on Boston Common. (It’s one of several instances where Maler makes good use of his open-air setting).
The banished Coriolanus joins forces with Aufidius and the Volscians for an attack on Rome, prompting an outburst by a Roman citizen that offers a reminder that irrationality is timeless. “Though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will,’’ the fellow says. (I was reminded of that 2009 milestone in the history of logic when, in the heat of the debate over health care reform, a man stood up at a town hall meeting in South Carolina and told his congressman to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!’’)
But the best moments of this “Coriolanus’’ are not reliant on any trace of topicality. For example, after Coriolanus has teamed up with the Volscians, the beleaguered city of Rome makes a last-ditch attempt to avoid destruction, sending to Coriolanus those whom he loves best: Volumnia, his wife, Virgilia (Esme Allen), and his son (Adam Freeman).
Maler skillfully stages the beginning of the encounter so the visitors are seen in a ghostly half-light. They stand there, not seeing the son, husband, father whose mercy they have come to beg. Coriolanus speaks not to them but of them. It’s as if they are dead to him.